Monday, July 19, 2010

New Life for the Los Angeles River

What recycling/rehabilitation project is larger than reestablishing the Los Angeles River as a living river? In the last two weeks the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared that the Los Angeles River is a waterway deserving of the protection of the Clean Water Act–in other words a real river.

For all of my life the Los Angeles River has been confined between concrete walls. But in recent years we have seen sections of the river reclaim its freedom. In forgotten corridors vegetation has flourished, wildlife has returned.

Many L.A. residents who have relocated here from the east regard the Los Angeles River as a glorified storm drain. They cite flooding in the 1930s and use it as evidence that the river only flows seasonally and is "dangerous." But if they would look back in history a little bit further, they would realize that there were human settlements along the river long before tract homes were built and agricultural lands were sectioned off. The native people and the Spanish lived here because there was water and they built on higher ground up from the meandering and somewhat marshy river because they respected the natural forces that caused the waterway to fluctuate seasonally.

I grew up in West Hills (when it was still Canoga Park) along Bell Creek, one of the three small streams that start the Los Angeles River. Though wild in the hillsides, the creek was cemented in by developers once it met the valley. Still, was a place where you could find tadpoles and raccoons. Though it trickled in the heat of summer, Bell Creek always flowed. Local folklore tells of a Native American village that stood here at the base of the foothills above the flood plain of the central part of the valley.

Leonis Adobe in Calabasas is built along Arroyo Calabasas which joins Bell and Chatsworth Creeks to form the River (just east of Canoga High School). At its beginnings this stream has been cleaned of debris in recent years and bubbles freely past the ranch house built in 1844. That is until it flows into Los Angeles County, where it too is confined in concrete. Topanga Mall is actually built over it.

The first house that my husband and I lived in was in Van Nuys along Bull Creek, another tributary confined by the Army Corp. of Engineers. This stream was contained so that Van Nuys Airfield could be built. In the last two years, the lower section of Bull Creek, just before it joins the river, has been rehabilitated. If you want to see what our waterways could have looked like prior to the paving of the San Fernando Valley visit Lake Balboa Park and stop at the dirt turnout before you reach the lake area. Walk along newly liberated Bull Creek and you will be surprised at the wildlife. This island of habitat is home to ground squirrels and desert cottontail rabbits. The sandy cliff banks are perfect nesting areas for swallows. Ducks and herons thrive.

To experience what marshy wetland areas were like and the myriad of birds that lived there, visit Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area. The surrounding grasslands, just slightly elevated above the wetland, feed a variety of native sparrows and finches visiting in the winter. These areas are flooded following storms, just as they should be, so the grasses can grow in the silt enriched soil.

Travel down the Los Angeles River beyond Burbank and you will come to areas where you can see the ground water bubbling up in the channel. In some areas it is lifting the concrete. The natural river is trying to return. Embracing the Los Angeles River.

Yes, applying the Clean Water Act is going to mean that each of us as individuals is going to become legally responsible for what runs off of our property and into the river. If you needed more than ethical and health reasons for limiting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on your property, this is it. For me, I'm excited. I have always loved the Los Angeles River, even when it was nearly dry. It could become the green heart of our city if we can all come together and find the positive thread that connects us together, the Los Angeles River.

For more on the recent status change of the Los Angeles River visit our local state representative, Julia Brownley's webpage.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Recycling Furniture with Paint

I gave new life to my old dining room chairs with a real recycling project–redoing the old upholstery.

Another idea is to paint older furniture and give it a new identity. Check out some ideas on what you can do with paint to breathe new life into your beloved furniture at The Decorative Paintbrush. I think you will find Mary's work inspirational.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bull Thistle - A Real Weed

Most people regard all thistles as invasive weeds. I happen to think they are beautiful and I have taken photos of them all over the world.

Recently we had a thistle sprout in the driveway. I decided to let it grow. Several species of thistle are native to Southern California and their nodding flower heads provide seed for our local lesser goldfinches and house finches. The down that creates the parachute to help spread the seed is used by a variety of birds and small creatures to provide plush comfort to their nests and homes.

The thistle in the drive has flowered and I think it is lovely–prickly, but delicate.

However, after consulting a few books and two reliable websites Oregon State University and, I have identified my thistle as a bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) a European / western Asian import. The “vulgare” in its scientific name means common. This imported thistle can be highly invasive and problematic.

For the sake of my local wild environment, this thistle must go.

Some “weeds” are welcome additions to your backyard biodiversity, others are not. If you have a thistle find out if it is a beneficial native or a problematic invasive and act from a position of knowledge.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Lion in the Yard - Ant Lions

There are tiny death traps in my front yard–ant lion pits.

One of the components of an integrated pest management plan is understanding the natural predators of a "pest" species. Ants are a common pest in suburban Los Angeles. Ants are attracted to the sweet and fat food stuffs abundant in our modern human diet. Invasive exotic species like the Argentine ant are also attracted to the water that people make available beyond natural amounts.

One ant predator is the descriptively named ant lion. This member of the ancient order of nerve-winged insects, Neuroptera, voraciously eats ants that tumble into its funnel-shaped pit made in loose sandy dirt. The hungry ant lion larva sits at the bottom of its excavated cone of loose soil. When an ant or other small insect troubles into the pit, grains of tumbling sand alert the ant lion that prey has entered its trap. The steep sides make escape difficult. Without warning the ant lion's fierce jaws snatch the frantic ant and consume it.

In several areas of the yard, small patches of sandy soil provide the perfect spot for these hidden ant traps. Throughout the summer little ant lion pits appear and disappear as the ant lions hunt, mature and eventually become delicate flying adults with elegant wings.

One of the rewards of not using pesticides, is the variety of insect predators that live in and visit our yard. Praying mantises, green lacewings, trapdoor spiders and ant lions are part of that biodiversity that maintains the natural balance in our yard and keeps the "pests" under control.

The next time you see an unusually perfect little pit in an out of the way place, take a second look. It could be an ant lion lair and an important insect predator.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Recycling Furniture - Part 2

The scariest part of reupholstering your own furniture is the day you take it apart to start the project and the moment you commit and put scissors to the new fabric.

Quality fabric is an investment and we calculated our needs pretty close. When you cut the fabric you don’t want to make any mistakes. We used the old fabric removed from one of the chairs as our pattern plus an additional 1.5-2 inches along all edges. You want to have enough fabric to hold on to and pull it, and you will trim off excess. Also remember that you will need extra fabric if there is a specific pattern to the material. The new fabric had a definite pattern and we wanted to make sure that the diamond shapes were always going the same way.

We started with the chair seats because they seemed the most straightforward. We had redone the support of the chair seat with jute webbing. Here you can see the fabric placed upside down, the new layer of foam (white) and then the wooden seat frame with the jute webbing and the remnants of the old fabric that was cut off (blue).

Recovering requires pulling the fabric snug before you staple it down. As novices, this was a two person job. I pulled the fabric tight and my husband manned the electric staple gun. We started at the back edge then pulled the opposite side taut, the front, then the sides, always working in opposition. We left the corners and then went back to them. Each corner was neatly folded, like wrapping a package.

We had carefully removed the black fabric from the underside of the chairs and saved it because it was still in good shape. Stapling it back in place finished the chair seats.

Next we took on the padded chair backs. We added new batting to the front of the chairs and carefully stapled the fabric on in the same way that the original fabric had been placed. It took four hands to keep the fabric smooth and tight, easing it over the rounded corners. The back was recovered last. We replaced the 1/4” foam, then pulled the fabric firmly and stapled it down.

The last step was folding over the fabric to make a smooth edge at the bottom of the chair back.

The final step was putting the back in place and attaching the seat.

It took weeks to take all of the chairs apart and remove the old fabric and staples. An afternoon to clean the wooden frames. An afternoon to redo the seat webbing and a day to upholster with the new fabric.

Our dining room chairs are beautiful and comfortable again. They look like new and we did it all ourselves! We saved money and natural resources and tried to reduce the amount of materials that were chemically treated. Best of all, we have a sense of accomplishment.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Wild Mourning Doves

Mourning doves are a common wild bird seen across North America. They are hunted by hawks and a long list of predators, including humans. Yet despite their position in the food web as a "fast food" item, mourning doves appear as one of the top ten most-counted bird species every year during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

In my own FeederWatch and Ebird counts, I always have mourning doves.

When I recently posted photos of a mourning dove nest with chicks, I was contacted by someone wanting to buy them.

This individual had rescued a young mourning dove, raised it as a pet, and now was looking for a mate for the captive bird.

While this person's intentions were to do good, they were crossing some important lines.
  1. It is illegal to keep native North American wild birds as pets. Around the world many species are endangered by unregulated or illegal collection for the pet trade.
  2. Young birds raised by humans, frequently are unable to socialize naturally with birds of their own kind and may never breed. (This is a constant issue with bird conservation programs and why such complicated efforts like feeding puppets are employed so that young birds never associate humans as their care-providers and/or parents.)
  3. Rescuing a wild creature means returning it to its normal, wild life whenever possible.

I have offered sanctuary to wild animals for short amounts of time; tree squirrel, California towhee, Allen's hummingbird. Success is seeing that animal living its life in the wild, even if that only means a few days.

The more I observe wild creatures, the less I want any creature to be a pet. Is it difficult to let a creature go back into the wild where it might be eaten by a predator or injured by humans? Yes.

But if you provide safe habitat, wild creatures will come and make use of the sanctuary you offer at the level they need and desire. I am spiritually uplifted watching the preying mantis youngsters emerge from their egg casing, witnessing the trials and challenges of the hummingbirds that I have rescued as they live their own natural lives. I do not need to own them. I don't want to own them. They all have important roles to play in a vibrant, healthy planet. I hope you can start to see the wild creatures around you in this way too.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Starting with the Seats - Upholstery

Where do you start when you are taking on your first upholstery project? With the part that seems the least intimidating–for our dining room chairs, that was the seats.

Initially we thought we could keep the old seat support materials.

But as we took more of them apart, we realized that the plasticized fabric was disintegrating and had completely failed on some of the chairs.

As we set out to redo the chairs, I did some research into "green" upholstery materials. While natural latex materials are available through the Internet, finding them locally was an issue. The cost is greater and the durability less, in some cases. We chose to use natural materials where we could.

We cut the old synthetic material out and replaced it with old-fashioned jute webbing. Jute is a strong natural fiber. You probably know it from burlap sacks. Jute has been used to provide sturdy, yet comfortable, support in furniture for thousands of years.

By interweaving the jute webbing, you create a stronger support because the weight is distributed evenly across the seat area.

Using an electric stapler, we attached the webbing to the seat frame. This electric stapler is my new favorite tool. It made the upholstery project possible.

The jute webbing will support the foam cushion on the chair seat.

Recycling Dining Room Chairs. Next comes the most stressful step, cutting into the fabric.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Recycling Furniture

I had a goal of sustainably reinvigorating my dining room chairs in June. Green Action #6 - I wanted to dig deeper with living a more sustainable lifestyle. Giving new life to our 22-year-old chairs was quite a process, but we did it. This was real recycling.

We took the chairs apart; removing the seat and back cushions, taking notes through out the process so that we could put everything back together.

Before we worked on the upholstery itself, I cleaned the wood framework of the chairs.

Each oak chair was scrubbed and oiled. When they were done, the frames looked like new.

Tomorrow, we'll take on the upholstery.